I should be the ideal audience for Wes Anderson’s latest film, The French Dispatch. First off, I am a fan of the director and a defender of his ostentatious style. Second, I’m a sucker for the film’s subject matter: the milieu of mid-20th century literary journalism. The film’s titular magazine is meant to be a combination of The New Yorker and The Paris Review, maybe with some hints of the New York Review of Books under Robert Silver as well.
The French Dispatch consists of four stories that take place in the French town, all based loosely on classic New Yorker pieces. The conceit of the film is that the hallowed old editor Arthur Howitzer Jr., played by Bill Murray, has died and this is the magazine’s last issue. (The publication was founded in the French town of Ennui-sur-Blasé by Howitzer, the son of a Kansas newspaper magnate — okay, let’s just stop right there for one moment, because here’s where I start to get annoyed: Ennui-sur-Blasé? Arthur Howitzer, Jr? These sort of punny jokes feel a little cheap and lame, but let’s let it slide for the moment.)
The first story is a tour of Ennui by the writer Sazerac — yes, like the drink — played by Owen Wilson, and apparently based on Joseph Mitchell’s evocative sketches of the seedy side of urban life. The second story, told by J.K.L. Berensen (Tilda Swinton), is about Moses Rosenthaler (Benicio del Toro), an incarcerated psychopathic murderer and abstract artist, his muse Simone (Lea Seydoux), and his unscrupulous art dealer Cadazio (Adrien Brody). This one is based on the 1951 New Yorker profile on Lord Duveen, the man responsible for the exhibition of the Elgin Marbles in the British Museum and for passing several phony Old Masters paintings to rich clients.
The third story goes off Mavis Gallant’s coverage of the 1968 student uprisings in Paris, and features Frances McDormand as a middle-aged writer who gets involved in a love triangle with young idealists, played by Timothee Chalamet and Lyna Khoudri. The fourth stars Jeffrey Wright as a composite of A.J. Liebling and James Baldwin, and shows the magazine’s food critic seeking out an elite chef who cooks exclusively for the commissioner of police.
Despite this overwhelmingly pretentious world-building, the movie is not by any means terrible. There’s a lot of funny and charming moments and even some rather touching ones, but the different narratives ultimately drag. They are all driven by the amusement involved in recognition of the references: the nods to Godard movies in the May ‘68 episode, or referents that aren’t real entities so much as clichés, like Del Toro’s insane, murdering abstract expressionist artist.
As you might have noticed, the film’s time-frame is very wide, covering the 1920s through the 1970s. Ostensibly this is to do honor to the entire Golden Age of magazines, but it ends up a sort of confused caricature of the 20th century. Suffering from the excessive cutesiness and preciosity that has afflicted Anderson since 2004’s The Life Aquatic, The French Dispatch feels like puppet theater, or an odd amusement park ride through “20th-century-land.” The movie even literally resorts to animation, becoming a cartoon, towards the end.
The truly brilliant thing Anderson accomplished in his early movies — Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums — was that he landed upon a way to represent the characters’ inner lives on screen. The principals in those movies are all either precocious children pretending to be adults or adults stuck in a childlike fantasy world, and the stylized and whimsical set design, costumes, and even the color palette communicated the imaginative lives these people projected onto the world. They were all sort of the film equivalent of free indirect style, where a writer’s tone matches the point of view of the character without going into first person.
However charming and delightful the imaginative world of his characters could be, Anderson was not limited to his involvement in it: these movies tell stories that have jarring returns to sordid reality, the characters come up against the limitations of their illusions. The results are funny and charming, but also quite melancholic and touching, communicating real loss and heartbreak. As you’d expect from an artist, Anderson’s films pay their tribute to reality, but come down on the side of the imagination and the movies make you agree: the world would be a worse place without them.
But the thing I’ve come to believe about The French Dispatch and the later Anderson films is that he’s lost his objectivity and become almost one of the childlike characters of his earlier films. In Rushmore, the protagonist Max Fischer puts on a series of elaborate school plays that are take offs on real-world referents like Serpico and Apocalypse Now. They are derivative, and shot-through with clichés and tropes, as you would expect from a young person’s first efforts at creativity. The French Dispatch feels like “Max Fischer presents The New Yorker magazine:” a precocious child imagining the world of mid 20th century journalism.
This bent of Andersonism is bound to be delightful and sweet, but there’s something a little grating about it as well: because Anderson, who is 52, is decidedly not a child, there’s also a degree of self-consciousness here about himself, saying to us “Aren’t I clever? Aren’t I endearing? Aren’t I wonderful?” In other words, just the sort of affectation Anderson would once have dealt with in a way that was simultaneously devastating and gentle. As a fan, I hope Anderson can once again find a way to move forward and backward, and ask the question of his best movies: whether it’s possible to both stay young and grow up.
Unfortunately, Anderson has become reliant on the most superficial aspect of his style. This has made his movies into confections, charming little bonbons like his characters might eat at a high tea, dressed in weird suits. This highly consumable characteristic is probably also why Anderson is sought out to do commercials and promotional videos for brands like Prada, American Express, and Softbank. It’s not that he’s sold out, exactly — he’s not pandering to public taste — but he’s become too much of a brand in himself. It might be better if he did something a little less easy to digest.
John Ganz is a Gawker columnist.